Posted on March 22, 2021

Inside the Biden Administration’s Failure to Contain the Border Surge

Ashley Parker et al., Washington Post, March 20, 2021

Shortly before Christmas last year, Susan Rice and Jake Sullivan, two top advisers to President-elect Joe Biden, sat for an interview with EFE, a Spanish wire service, to issue a stark warning to migrants considering journeying north to the nation’s southern border: Don’t come now — but help is on the way.

The next day, Biden was similarly pointed, saying his administration — while eager to roll back Donald Trump’s immigration policies — first needed to implement “guardrails” to avoid winding up with “2 million people on our border.”

Less than a month later, the new president began tearing down some of the guardrails himself. He issued five immigration executive orders on Inauguration Day alone and promised an immigration policy far more humane and welcoming than that of his predecessor. His administration also began allowing unaccompanied minors into the country, a marked departure from the Trump administration’s approach.

Now, the Biden administration is scrambling to control the biggest surge in 20 years, with the nation on pace for as many as 2 million migrants at the southern border this year — the outcome Biden said he wanted to avoid.

Along with the existing struggle to combat the coronavirus, immigration has emerged as one of the administration’s most urgent challenges — seized on by Republicans as a political cudgel, posing risks to Democrats in the 2022 midterms and potentially undermining Biden’s governing agenda. The issue also threatens to overshadow the president’s recent political victories in passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and making rapid strides in vaccination efforts.

The situation at the border — which Biden and his advisers steadfastly refuse to call a crisis — is the result of an administration that was forewarned of the coming surge, yet still ill-prepared and lacking the capacity to deal with it. Administration officials have been plagued by muddled messaging, sometimes making appeals that seem directed more at liberal activists than the migrants they need to dissuade from coming to the country.

The administration also took several steps — including saying it would allow unaccompanied minors into the country — that increased the flow of migrants and encouraged more to try their luck. There are now more than 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and 5,000 more in the care of Customs and Border Protection, nearly twice the previous record, according to the latest figures obtained by The Washington Post.

“When you create a system that incentivizes people to come across, and they are released, that immediately sends a message to Central America that if you come across you can stay,” said Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, whose South Texas district sits near the border with Mexico. “It incentivizes droves of people to come, and the only way to slow it down is by changing policy at our doorstep. If they don’t change the policy, the flow of continued migration traffic isn’t going to stop or slow down.”


During the transition period, career officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection tried to issue sober alarms to the Biden team about the likelihood of a crisis at the border that could quickly overwhelm the nation’s capacity. Senior CBP officials delivered Zoom briefings to the Biden transition team that included modeling projections showing a steep increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors if Trump’s policies were suddenly lifted, according to one current and two former Department of Homeland Security officials.


Biden transition officials understood the risks, as well, identifying a surge of unaccompanied minors and a dearth of shelter space exacerbated by the pandemic as the most pressing problems.

Yet Biden immediately embarked on an aggressive strategy to roll back Trump administration policies. On his first day, Biden suspended border wall construction, affirmed protections for young immigrant “dreamers,” scrapped Trump’s ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, and ordered a 100-day moratorium on deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also sent a broad immigration overhaul proposal to Congress, including an eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal status.

More moves followed in rapid-fire succession. The president ordered a major increase in refugee admissions. He launched a task force to reunify families separated by Trump’s “zero tolerance” crackdown while easing restrictions for minors under Title 42. And he ended the “Remain in Mexico” program Trump had used to send asylum seekers back across the border to wait outside U.S. territory for their cases to be decided — allowing hundreds of families crowded into squalid camps to enter the United States, producing emotional scenes that circulated widely in Spanish-language media.

According to Biden administration officials, Trump had left them with a rickety immigration system at best — a patchwork of deterrent policies, some with dubious legal underpinnings — because his only goal was to keep people out.

But Biden did not have adequate preparations in place when he began rolling back some of Trump’s policies and sounding a welcoming note. Even some Biden allies said they had expected the White House to use the coronavirus crisis to buy themselves time to implement a more robust immigration plan before beginning wholesale policy changes, and were taken aback when Biden forged ahead.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged last week that the Biden administration is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.” {snip}


It was late January, just a few days into Biden’s presidency, when Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) started getting worried, calling a White House contact to discuss the surge of migrants arriving on the southern border.


In the months that followed, Cuellar, the son of migrant farmworkers, grew increasingly frustrated, feeling that not only had administration officials failed to heed his warnings, but they were uninterested in the advice of local officials like himself who had a close-up view of the problems.

His anger reached a boiling point in early March when the White House quietly sent a delegation of officials — led by Rice — to visit South Texas tent sites badly overcrowded with teens and children, without giving a heads-up to him, Gonzales or Rep. Filemon Vela, all Democrats who represent Texas border districts.


Administration officials briefed Biden after the trip, showing him photos from the visit. He also receives updates several times a week on the border situation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.


In her White House briefing Thursday, answering a question on immigration, Psaki seemed to slip up, referring to “the crisis on the border.”

Pressed later on her word choice, Psaki corrected herself, saying “challenges on the border,” and replied that her earlier misstatement did not reflect any change in the administration’s thinking about the border surge.


In the meantime, one clear message has resonated with migrants. The week after Rice’s border visit, Cuellar visited a detention facility for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Tex. Cuellar said he asked 16- and 17-year-olds whether they had heard Biden when he said not to come to the United States.

The teenagers looked at each other and said no, he recalled. Okay, Cuellar pressed, what about the messages from friends, neighbors and family saying now is the time to come — were they hearing those?

“They all raised their hands and said yes,” Cuellar recalled. “They said, ‘We see this on TV. We see images of people coming across. . . . We see people coming across, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”

“This,” the migrants told him, “is our opportunity to do this.”